Nimrod

Exegetical Approaches

Overview

Commentators portray Nimrod's character in contrasting ways.  The vast majority of exegetes follow the Midrash in painting him as a negative figure.  They are motivated by his name which contains the root מרד (to rebel), the description of him as a "hunter before Hashem", and his connection to Shinar, home of the Tower of Bavel.  Others adhere to the simple sense of the text, which says nothing explicitly negative about Nimrod.  Thus, Radak views him as a mighty hunter and conqueror, and R"E Ashkenazi depicts him as a prodigious builder.  Ibn Ezra goes even further and suggests that Nimrod was actually a righteous individual, sacrificing to and worshiping Hashem.

Wicked

Nimrod was a wicked character who rebelled against Hashem and/or oppressed his fellow men.

Wicked toward whom? While most of these sources focus on Nimrod's rebelliousness against Hashem,1 R"Y Bekhor Shor, Ramban, and Netziv point to his oppressing of men, with the former highlighting his robbing of them and Ramban and Netziv suggesting that Nimrod introduced war and tyranny to the world.  Seforno combines the two approaches, asserting that Nimrod looked to rule over the entire human species via an idolatrous deity that all would worship.
Meaning of "נמרוד" – The Bavli explains that Nimrod's name derives from the word "מרד", hinting to his rebellious nature.2  Though the other sources are not as explicit, many make wordplays with the two words, and it is possible that the name played a part in their choice to read Nimrod's character negatively.
"הוּא הֵחֵל לִהְיוֹת גִּבֹּר בָּאָרֶץ"
  • First "גִּבֹּר" after the flood – R"Y Bekhor Shor asserts that even though there were violent men (גבורים) before Nimrod, they were all destroyed in the flood.  Nimrod was the first after the deluge to resume a life of brutality; thus the language of "הוּא הֵחֵל".
  • First ruler ever – Ramban maintains that Nimrod was actually the first king.  Before him nobody had ever fought wars or used their power to rule over others.
  • Nimrod profaned – R. Simon in Bereshit Rabbah takes the word "הֵחֵל" out of its simple sense and suggests instead that it insinuates rebellion.  He presumably understands the word to be related to the root "חול", meaning secular or profane.
"גִבֹּר צַיִד"
  • Hunter of animals - Philo opines that Nimrod's chosen profession is an indication of his character, for "he who lives among wild beasts wishes to live the life of a beast". According to Pirkei De Rabbi Eliezer, hunting is not inherently evil, but Nimrod's role as hunter3 is what led humans to fear him, allowing him to rule over them and sway them to rebel against Hashem.
  • Hunter of men - Bereshit Rabbah, Targum Yerushalmi, and Rashi posit that Nimrod "hunted" or trapped men with his words, distancing them from the ways of Hashem.4  R"Y Bekhor Shor posits that the description refers to Nimrod's thievery.5
"'לִפְנֵי ה‎‏"
  • Against Hashem – Philo suggests that the phrase means "against Hashem" (rather than before Hashem).  Most of the other sources do not say so explicitly, but appear to read it in the same manner, as they too view Nimrod as rebelling against God.
  • In Hashem's Face – Sifra Vayikra (and Rashi similarly) claims that this language is used to show that someone is acting with full knowledge of Hashem and with the intention of rebelling against Him.6 R"Y Bekhor Shor elaborates that Nimrod's sins constituted an act of defiance of Hashem, since he knowingly ignored the fact that Hashem had just punished previous such sinners with the Flood.
  • Language of amplification – In contrast, Ramban and Seforno do not read anything negative into this phrase.  According to Ramban, the verse is saying that there were none on earth ("before Hashem" = in the world) comparable to Nimrod in might,7 while Seforno asserts that the word "Hashem" is an intensifier,8 and the text is simply stating that  Nimrod was a very mighty hunter.
  • According to the Will of Hashem – Netziv is unique among these sources in reading the term positively.  He asserts that though Nimrod was evil, his actions fulfilled Hashem's desires, since Hashem recognized the necessity of monarchy and dominion.  He compares it to Hashem referring to Nevuchadnezzar as "my Servant", for despite his wickedness, Nevuchadnezzar acted as Hashem's staff of wrath to punish various nations.
Connection to Story of Tower of Bavel – Most of these commentators9 connect Nimrod to the building of the Tower, suggesting that he was the initiator of the rebellious endeavor.  Since he reigned in Bavel, in the land of Shinar, the association is easy to  make, and is probably a further motivation for reading Nimrod negatively.  Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan), though, explicitly states that Nimrod did not play a part in the building; though Nimrod acted against Hashem, his rebelliousness was not as extreme as that of the people who built the Tower.
"מִן הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא יָצָא אַשּׁוּר" – These sources disagree regarding who is the subject of the verb "יָצָא", and thus regarding the import of this sentence:
  • Assyria – Bereshit Rabbah, Rashi, and Seforno all assert that Assyria left the land of Nimrod, so as not to be a part of his plot to build the tower. For this action, he was rewarded measure for measure, and was able to build four cities.10
  • Nimrod – R"Y Bekhor Shor and Ramban, in contrast, assert that it is Nimrod who left to Assyria,11 extending his empire to the lands of Shem.12 This is consistent with their understanding that Nimrod's wickedness lay in his oppression of and dominion over men, and not in his defiance of Hashem.  Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) agrees that the verb refers to Nimrod, but assumes that it shows a positive rather than a negative aspect of his character.  Nimrod left to Assyria so as not to join with the people who built the Tower.
Why does the Torah elaborate about Nimrod? This position might assert that the Nimrod pericope provides background for the story of the Tower of Bavel, introducing the corrupt leader of the endeavor. In addition, it serves to contrast the depraved line of Cham (from which Nimrod came) with the more righteous line of Shem (from which Assyria descended).

Neutral

Nimrod was neither particularly wicked nor righteous.  The text focuses on his secular pursuits and accomplishments rather than on his religiosity or character.

"הוּא הֵחֵל לִהְיוֹת גִּבֹּר בָּאָרֶץ"
  • First king –  Radak and Shadal assert that Nimrod was not the first powerful person,13 but rather the first to display and utilize his strength to conquer others and rule over them as king.14
  • First engineer – R"E Ashkenazi maintains that "גִּבֹּר" refers not to someone who is mighty in strength, but to someone who excels in wisdom.  Nimrod was the first to learn how to construct large buildings and cities.
"גִבֹּר צַיִד"
  • Hunter – Radak and Shadal understand the phrase according to its simple sense, that Nimrod was a great hunter.  Shadal explains that, in that era, wild animals were a real threat to society, so those who killed them were honored for helping the weaker inhabitants.
  • Warrior – According to R"E Ashkenazi, the word "צַיִד" is related to the word "מצודה" and refers to the fortresses of battle.  Nimrod was wise in battle as well as building, knowing how to fortify his cities from enemy attacks.
"'לִפְנֵי ה‎‏" – All of these commentators agree that the term comes to express how Nimrod was an extremely talented "גִבֹּר צַיִד", but they differ in the specifics of the term's definition.
  • Intensifier – Radak asserts that when the name of Hashem is connected to an action or word, it serves to amplify it.15 
  • Throughout the world – Shadal (following Ramban above) suggests that the phrase means that there was nobody like Nimrod in the entire world.
  • Well known – According to the Ma'asei Hashem, the term is used to refer to something that is well known.16  As support, he points to its usage by the Givonim in Shemuel II 21:6,9: "וַיֹּקִיעֻם בָּהָר לִפְנֵי ה'‏‎".17
Meaning of "נמרוד" – Most of these sources do not read anything into Nimrod's name. Shadal, though, suggests that those people who were not under Nimrod's authority might have referred to him as a "מורד". He also brings the opinion of those who say that the name derives from the root "נמר" (tiger).  If so, it might be related to his hunting prowess.
"מִן הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא יָצָא אַשּׁוּר" – These sources divide regarding the subject of the sentence and what the verse says about Nimrod:
  • Nimrod – R"E Ashkenazi and Shadal both maintain that Nimrod is the one who left to Assyria.18  According to R"E Ashkenazi, the cities Nimrod built there testify to his engineering prowess, while according to Shadal they are an example of his conquests.
  • Assyria – According to Radak, the subject is Assyria, a competing power, who was able to conquer the lands of Nimrod, despite Nimrod's might.
Connection to Story of Tower of Bavel – Most of these sources do not connect the two stories.  Shadal, though, notes that even in his (Shadal's) time, the Tower of Bavel was still known by the name of Nimrod.  According to Shadal, this was originally connected to Nimrod's reigning in the area.  Although the tower was a site of idolatry, Nimrod in his lifetime probably did not proclaim himself as a god against Hashem.
Why does the Torah elaborate about Nimrod? These sources offer several possibilities:
  • Extraordinary – Radak asserts that Nimrod is singled out in the genealogy list due to his unique abilities.  Similarly, according to the Ma'asei Hashem, Nimrod might be highlighted because of his contributions to civilization.  This would be comparable to Lemekh's children, who are uniquely mentioned in Kayin's genealogy because of their introduction of metallurgy, shepherding skills, and music to the world.
  • Lesson regarding Hashem's dominion – Radak also posits that the story is brought to teach that the world belongs to Hashem and He can give it to whom He pleases.  Nimrod might have been a mighty warrior, but even his lands were conquered by another.
  • Refute false beliefs – Shadal asserts that people believed Nimrod to be Belus, the first king of Bavel, who was later worshiped as a deity in the Tower of Bavel.  Since Belus was so well known, the Torah informs everyone that, in reality, Nimrod was not a god, but merely a mighty hunter.

Righteous

Nimrod was a righteous individual who worshiped Hashem.

Meaning of "נמרוד" – Ibn Ezra asserts that unless the text gives an explanation for a name, one should not try to find a meaning behind it.  Ibn Ezra is apparently reacting against those who claim that Nimrod is related to the word "מרד" and thereby conclude that Nimrod was rebellious.19
"הוּא הֵחֵל לִהְיוֹת גִּבֹּר בָּאָרֶץ" – Nimrod was the first to show man's might over animals.
"גִבֹּר צַיִד" – Ibn Ezra explains this phrase according to its simple sense; Nimrod was a great hunter.
"'לִפְנֵי ה‎‏" – According to Ibn Ezra, these words are to be understood literally.  After hunting animals, Nimrod would bring them "before Hashem" as sacrifices.
Connection to Story of Tower of Bavel – Ibn Ezra does not connect Nimrod to the story of the Tower of Bavel.20
Why does the Torah elaborate about Nimrod? According to Ibn Ezra, Nimrod might be singled out due to his righteousness, just as Chanokh is listed with the extra description, "וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים".
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